Writer/director Justin Simien knew what he was doing when he chose this title. Few films are more aptly named. And if the title makes you feel awkward, then you yourself should probably be watching this movie.
There is a saying that laughter is the best medicine. With Dear White People, Simien hopes that satire is the best way to approach a very serious topic about race relations in America. His tongue and cheek film follows a group of students in an Ivy League school in the days leading up to a controversial race themed party (inspired by actual events). It’s a film that asks the serious questions, but challenges its audiences to do the same.
A colorful, and well acted set of characters help navigate a sometimes dizzying, murky narrative. There’s class president hopeful, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), a son of the school’s Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert) who finds himself imbedded in white society through an interracial relationship and an upscale upbringing while also trying to reclaim leadership amongst the school’s Black student union. There’s Coco (Teyonah Paris), an internet Celeb wannabe who is hell bent on eradicating every bit of her lower class black heritage. Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hate’s Chris fame is notably fantastic as Lionel Higgins, a shy, homosexual nerd who feels lost in a see of college identities.
But the character that gives the film its wit and authenticity is campus radio show host and aspiring filmmaker Sam White (played wonderfully by Tessa Thompson). Along with proverbial sidekick Reggie (Marque Richardson) she embarks on a movement to reclaim a black voice in a school that wants them to be peaceful, respectful bystanders regardless of the oppositions that beg for them to be anything but. Kyle Gallner is also noteworthy as Kurt, the film’s primary antagonist. Kurt represents the sleaziest of adversaries. He is a spoiled, homophobic, victim blaming, racist, but he is also dangerously intelligent.
Each very real character shines an appropriate light on different positive and negative perspectives on the nature of what it means to be “a black face in a white place”. The film’s biggest flaw, other than its wavering style that jumps from documentary to teen comedy without warning, is that it focuses too much on trivial elements to please younger demographics. A secret interracial relationship between two characters is a fine element, so why include a love triangle? But the film is nonetheless eye opening and poignant. It may be called Dear White People, but it contains a message for all races and cultures. And it goes without saying that a film on this subject matter is necessary in today’s times.
FINAL GRADE: B+